When the translator was roared down by thousands of people in the Government Science College grounds at Chitradurga on May 5th last year as soon as Prime Minister Modi began his public address, everybody in Karnataka realized that they were witnessing a great political movement not seen for many decades after the death of Mrs. Indira Gandhi.
It is very important to understand the political context of that Modi rally which went viral after that with crowds everywhere shouting down the translators. The state ruled by the Congress led by Siddharamaiah had created a massive campaign built on regional pride and Kannada, but the people of the state were in essence telling the world that they really do not care about such parochial regional chauvinism and instead have faith in the Prime Minister of India.
Before, the Modi political rallies began in the first week of May, Karnataka was actually heading for a repeat Congress victory. Siddharamaih had managed to unite a large number of Kuruba (Yadav counterparts of south India) and a segment of Dalit voters who in combination with the minorities had provided a solid base to the Congress party. Our poll survey in mid-April had concluded that BJP was stuck at around 75 odd seats and was simply not making that critical transition of additional 3-4% votes. We had even informed the BJP leadership of this saffron stagnation. Party workers too were in a kind of slumber, waiting for somebody to give them a momentum.
This is when the Modi campaign began with that now famous slogan of “change the government, elect the BJP”. Within a week, everything had changed. Suddenly our trackers began to buzz as polling booth after polling booth, literally in thousands everyday started shifting to the right. 48 hours before polling day, our models showed that BJP had made a quantum leap in about 40 seats in just a matter of days. The party was poised to win Karnataka, but then something unexpected happened.
On polling day, in at least a dozen seats, BJP simply lost steam. It was as if somebody had shut off a switch. Political momentum is a unique beast in India. Having tracked tens of hundreds of elections in the country, I can vouch for the fact that very rarely does political momentum reverse so suddenly. In the normal course of an Indian election the momentum given by Modi should have further strengthened and taken BJP to about 130 odd seats, but instead it was halted.
Nobody will fully know what exactly happened on that fateful Sunday last May, but there are many conspiracy theories. Story goes that a section of BJP and RSS wanted to cleanse the party of its “corrupt” taint and wanted to get rid of B.S Yeddiyurappa just like they had managed to do a few months ago in Himachal Pradesh where P.K. Dhumal was defeated and had to give up the Chief Minister’s mantle despite the party fighting the election under his leadership. Another story suggests that quite a few tickets were given to dummy candidates who simply stuck local level deals with the opposition parties and lost campaign steam at the last moment.
Whatever the reasons, the end result was that BJP was stuck at around 105 seats because the momentum was halted (we have been endlessly trolled ever since by many RW folk on Twitter for changing our projection at the last moment, but we were simply reflecting the reality). The Karnataka election taught us two important lessons.
The same Modi wave seems to have made seamless transition in Karnataka after a year now. Yet, we were sceptical because of what happend last year and were pretty conservative about BJP's chances before polling day. In the first phase yesterday, wherein the ruling INC-JDS alliance was supposed to either hold on to their 8 seats or even improve their position actually ended up losing in a big way. This is an unprecedented shock for Karnataka politics, the reverberations of which will be felt for a long time to come.
In a phase where BJP was expected to underperform, the party has managed to add more than 10% additional vote-share. Why has vote transfer between Congress and JDS not happened beyond minority consolidation? Why are Vokkaligas suicidal enough to vote for the BJP bypassing their own caste Chief Minister and the Vokkaliga patriarch?
The answer to these questions are a little complex and one must understand the underlying demographic shifts. During the 5 year Congress rule in Karnataka, Vokkaligas and Lingayats were at the receiving end of the Siddharamaiah political maneuvers which had angered these communities to such an extent that in every village these communities had virtually boycotted the Congress party. One manifestation of this anger was that the CM himself lost in his home district in the 2018 assembly elections because he couldn’t get even a solitary Vokkaliga vote.
When JDS allied with the Congress to form a government, a lot of this anger was glossed over by both the parties. But the memories of the Siddhu rule are too fresh in the minds of the voters who simply cannot forget the way Kurubas came to dominate the power structure in every village. On the other side of the divide, the Kurubas feel let down because they no longer enjoy the dominance due to a Vokkaliga dominated government at the helm in the state. Two parliamentary constituencies best demonstrate this dichotomy of the Vokkaliga-Kuruba internecine political battle.
Today when Congress has put up a Kuruba candidate in the Mysore seat, the 5 lakh strong Vokkaliga community refused to vote for the Congress despite it being in alliance with their own party, the JDS, and rather supported the BJP nominee, Pratap Simha (a young Vokkaliga icon himself). Of course, the fact that he has done some stellar work in the five years as MP has only added feather to his cap. On the other hand, in Tumkur, Vokkaliga patriarch Devegowda is also facing a similar dilemma as the 1 lakh strong Kuruba community voters simply voted for BJP rather than support the JDS.
To add to the woes of the alliance, Devegowda created a major hara-kiri by putting up two of his grandsons as Lok Sabha candidates in the election. In earlier times, this may have worked wonders, but today, most Indians are deeply angered by feudalistic principles of politicians who want many generations of their offspring to enjoy political power. A vast number of ordinary JDS workers were angry with this move, especially when BJP in just one year has refused to heed to dynastic succession twice in very high profile cases. Last year during assembly elections, BJP refused ticket to BSY’s son Vijayendra (which many observers believe led to defeat of BJP in at least 2-3 seats of Mysore division) and this time again BJP refused to entertain the candidacy of Tejaswini Anantkumar despite massive sympathy wave in her favor. It is in this background that many in JDS feel that they will never get an opportunity to win a political office as long as only one family gets all the benefits. Thus, a lot of JDS workers were working in Mandya to defeat the CM’s son and even in Hassan, the family pocket borough, local JDS leaders were sympathetic to BJP – Hassan is a tossup and Mandya has shown massive leads for BJP backed independent candidate, Sumalatha Ambareesh, in our tracker models yesterday.
Of course, it is not just the Vokkaliga-Kuruba warfare or the JDS missteps that helped the BJP, but there is a genuine feeling of great support for Modi cutting across caste lines. Karnataka is also a state in the throes of unprecedented nationalistic fervor. For instance, this year, ‘Uri – the Surgical Strike’ movie was one of the biggest blockbusters ever in the state after possibly Sholay. It has grossed more than 40 Crore rupees in the state which is higher than some of the biggest Kannada language blockbusters. Hence it was not a surprise for us when 1 out of every 2 voters openly said that their voting would be decided by the nationalistic cause.
In Udupi-Chikmagalur LS seat for example, Shobha Karndlaje was best known as “absentee MP” among the party workers because she had virtually forgotten her constituency after winning in 2014. On voting day, despite many workers being absent, ordinary voters themselves arranged for a “mass vote for Modi” campaign and have given BJP an undeserved victory.
Similarly, in Chikkaballapur and Kolar which had elected Congress even in the 2014 Modi wave, voters have this time turned saffron. The mighty Veerappa Moily, a former Chief Minister, is about to bite the dust as per our trackers. In the three seats of Bangalore, there was virtually no contest. The only seat which saw comfortable leads for the Congress party was Bangalore rural, where Vokkaliga strongman and Congress party strategist D.K. Shivakumar’s brother is the sitting MP.
All of this has added tremendous vote-share heft to the BJP. The party has gained a massive 11% in these 14 seats that went to polls yesterday, even as the INC-JDS alliance has lost an even bigger 13% as compared to 2014. This kind of a swing cannot be in isolation. BJP is heading towards the unprecedented 50% mark in the state, and to think that actually it will be on Tuesday that the strongholds of the party will vote in north Karnataka Lingayat belt.
The failure of the Congress-JDS alliance will come as a huge shock to Indian politics, for it would now mean that even if the entire opposition unites, Modi would not be defeated. Karnataka political movement will have extraordinary repercussions across India, for opposing Modi, just for the sake of power will have very few takers from now on. It is quite possible now that on the 23rd of May this year, media will declare 2019 as Modi wave 2.0.
[We will be analysing all the other states that went to polls in phase 2 throughout this weekend]